Twice over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of co-leading (with Ed O’Malley first, Jill Hufnagel most recently) 1775 to Today: Lessons in Leadership, an empowering Beacon Leadership Collaborative program that looks to our nation’s founding for lessons on leadership and on the challenges of leadership in a democracy. There is much to learn, and the power of the inquiry, both historical and contemporary, was brought home to me over the past two days as I read Joseph Ellis’ brilliant The Cause. If you thought, as I was tempted to, that everything there was to be said about the American Revolution had been said, you’d be wrong. Tapping new sources and a lifetime of scholarship on the birth of our nation, Ellis manages (as he has in other works) to shine a bright light on previously hidden aspects of the war against the Crown and then on the struggle to create a nation. The mythology about our earliest days notwithstanding, defeating the English war machine was improbable and inventing a new system of governance unimaginably difficult. It was only by accepting slavery and papering over contradictory ideas about the Union that our forebears could claim to turn the military victory into a political one. It was by no means clear that a democratic republic would emerge from the uncertainties and conflicts of the day. And it is not certain that it can survive the uncertainties and conflicts of today. Ellis’ book is an invitation to a renewed commitment to 1775 to Today, the more so for Ellis’ reflections on what George Washington and our Founders would offer to us in our time. A brilliant historian, Ellis is clear that we study history not only to know what happened in the past, but also to gain insights into what we might do in the present, and what we might make happen for the future. If ever there were a time to reflect on the qualities of leadership needed for uncertain times, this is that time.
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